Frequently asked questions about prescription drugs in Canada

As a leading provider of insurance, including health and dental insurance plans, we often get questions about prescription drugs in Canada. Here are the ones we hear most from our Manulife CoverMe customers, along with answers we hope you’ll find helpful.

What’s the difference between prescription drugs, non-prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs?

Good question! It can certainly be confusing. Here’s a breakdown.

Prescription drugs. Medications that are on the prescription drugs list require the authorization of a medical practitioner, such as a doctor or dentist. Usually, you’ll get a piece of paper with the name of the drug(s), the amount and instructions for how to take it (for example, 2 pills twice daily; take with food), and the doctor’s signature at the bottom. You then take the prescription to a pharmacy to get it filled. The pharmacist will dispense the drugs and go over the instructions to make sure you understand them and can follow them.

Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. OTC medications are the ones you see on the shelves behind the pharmacy counter. You don’t need a prescription for these, but you do need to be careful and take them correctly. That’s why you must consult with the pharmacist to make sure it’s the right product for you and won’t do you any harm.

Non-prescription drugs. You can pick up common medications to treat allergies, colds, flu, headaches and so on off the shelf at any pharmacy or grocery. Even though there’s no prescription required, it’s still important to take these medications only as directed.

So who decides what goes on the prescription drugs list? That decision is based on three broad principles under Health Canada guidelines. If any one of these principles applies, then the drug will be included on the prescription drugs list.

Principle 1: Supervision by a practitioner is necessary to diagnose and treat the condition for which the drug will be used and/or monitor the condition and the use of the drug.

Principle 2: Supervision by a practitioner is needed because of the level of uncertainty respecting the drug, its use or its effects.

Principle 3: Using the drug could cause harm to human health and that risk could be mitigated by the supervision of a practitioner.

Are brand-name drugs better than generic drugs?

In terms of effectiveness, no. Generic drugs are approved by Health Canada. They must have the same medicinal ingredients in the same amount as their counterpart on the brand-name drugs list, act the same way in your body and have the same safety and efficacy.

Does that mean they’re the same? Not exactly. Generic drugs may have different non-medicinal ingredients than the brand-name drug.

Ultimately, it’s your choice. Brand-name drugs are sold by the company that developed them and protected by patent. Generic drugs, which are often less expensive, can be produced only after the patent on the original drug expires. 

How does individual health insurance work? Do I still have to pay out-of-pocket?

Individual or private health plans, like those offered by Manulife CoverMe, can be a great way to help protect your pocketbook from costly medications. Policies can vary widely in terms of prescription drug coverage, so look for a plan that fits your needs. For example, some plans exclude expensive prescription drugs. The deductible on prescription drugs (the portion that you have to pay) also varies.


Want to know how much money you can get back from private health insurance for prescription drug costs? Our Manulife CoverMe plans have some of the highest prescription drug coverage amounts in Canada. 

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Are prescription costs tax-deductible in Canada?

Prescriptions costs aren’t deductible, but they do qualify for the Medical Expense Tax Credit. So do hearing aids, walkers, eyeglasses, service animals and a whole lot more. You can claim only eligible medical expenses that exceed 3% of your net income or $2,479 (whichever is less). Expenses can be claimed for any 12-month period that ends in the tax year you’re reporting. In addition, one spouse can claim the total medical expenses for the family. Either or both options may help increase the amount that qualifies for the credit.

Do government health plans include prescription drug coverage?

Canada doesn’t yet have universal pharmacare, but provincial and territorial drug benefit programs provide support to seniors, minors and those receiving social assistance. Programs change from time to time, so it’s a good idea to check regularly to see if you qualify.

In addition, many Canadians have group benefits through their employer that include prescription drug plans. You can also purchase coverage directly from an insurer, like Manulife CoverMe.

Will my prescription cost the same no matter which pharmacy I go to?

No. The cost of the drug will depend on whether the pharmacy can offer you a lower-cost generic instead of the brand name. In addition, pharmacies charge a dispensing fee. The amount varies from one location to the next, so you may be able to save by shopping around. You can also cut costs by getting the maximum supply your pharmacy will dispense (usually three months) at once. That way, you pay just one dispensing fee. 

What do I do with leftover medication? Can I take it back for a refund?

Drugstores generally don’t take returns, even if you haven’t used any of your medication. However, don’t just leave it sitting in your medicine cabinet. If misused or taken by accident, your medication could cause serious harm. That’s why it’s on the prescription drugs list in the first place. Anytime you have expired or unused medications, you can take them to any pharmacy to be disposed of safely. Never throw them in the garbage, flush them down the toilet or pour them down the sink where they pose a significant risk to the environment.

My sister wants to try my meds and see if they work for her. Is it okay to share?

Absolutely not. Your medication was prescribed for you based on a professional medical evaluation of your condition. If your sister has a similar condition, she should speak to her doctor to find out whether she might benefit from the same or a similar treatment.

Medications can be an essential tool for maintaining health. But it’s important to use them properly. If you have questions about your prescriptions or even non-prescription drugs, consult your pharmacist or healthcare practitioner. 

At Manulife CoverMe, we have prescription drug plans to fit just about every situation and budget, whether you’re looking to top up coverage you have through work, need to replace group coverage because you’re leaving your job or want a simple application with no medical questions.

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